October is LGBT History Month. To honor transgender people and their unique histories, I will be featuring transgender people and parents of transgender children all month long. Through sharing their stories, I hope to raise awareness of this amazing population of people who still struggle for basic human rights.
By Tina Madison White, author, mother, and advocate
For fifty years, I struggled with the pain and confusion of living in the wrong gender. When people hear this, they generally assume that this means that I spent fifty years wanting to play dress-up; fifty years wanting to become a woman.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I spent fifty years trying desperately to become a man.
I wasn’t trying to be false. I assumed that I was a man and that I would learn to be a better one by acting the part. I presented my best understanding of manliness even as I worked feverishly and in secret to fix myself. I tried prayer, therapy, sports, all-boys’ schools, marriage, children—even cocktails and barbecues with the guys. Surely someone or something could cure me.
I only gave up when I finally came face-to-face with suicide. No matter how deeply ashamed and angry my family might be, I felt certain that my first priority was to stay alive. Victory, I decided, lay not in conquering my gender, but in learning to accept it.
I no more understand why I am a woman or what it means to be one than anyone else does. Society debates the meaning of womanhood and of people like me every day. All I know is this: for the first time in my life, I am happy. For the first time in my life, I am living on the outside as I have always felt on the inside. I know of no other way to experience the world than as a woman.
I didn’t change my gender; I stopped trying to change it. I didn’t play dress-up; I stopped playing dress-up. I hadn’t been lying to my family; I had been lying to myself.
For fifty years, I was as transphobic as the rest of society. I despised the womanly sentiments inside me. I was certain that they represented a sickness. I tried my damndest to silence the person within me. This, I think, is why so many of us finally consider suicide. Why shouldn’t we? We are only completing what we are already doing to ourselves.
From our perspective, what we do isn’t a transition. It is a coming out. We are finally accepting the person inside us and allowing them to come out into the full view of the world. If you want to understand why we do what we do, you have only to look at it from the perspective of the person inside. Don’t blame yourself if you find this difficult. We have been hiding them from you all our lives.
Our reasons for transitioning have nothing to do with gender or sex. Yes, these are a part of our story. But they aren’t the why. They are the what and the how. We transition for far more fundamental reasons—basic needs that we share with everyone.
One reason I transitioned was simply to be known. I had lived my entire life walled off from humanity. My mother and father didn’t know who I was. My children didn’t know. I began to wonder: If I die without anyone ever knowing who I was, did I ever live? No.
Solitary confinement is a profoundly dehumanizing experience. That is what life felt like to the person inside me. I had carefully walled her off from all human contact. I had forced her to live her life in darkness.
To transition is to walk into daylight.
I also transitioned in order to find out what it feels like to be loved. When you present a false self to the world—even unconsciously—you cannot take pleasure in someone else’s expressions of love. Their very declarations feel like a betrayal.
When I was young, my mother told me that she loved me all the time. I hated it. I hated her for saying it. I hated myself for feeling so hateful.
Now I finally understand my feelings. I had to stand there and watch as she declared her love for someone not me. It left the real me feeling wretched and worthless. Now, for the first time in my life, when someone says “I love you”, I feel it inside. They are talking to me. It is wonderful.
To transition is to feel the warmth of the sun on your soul.
I was also driven to transition by the desire to express my love.
I had always considered myself a loving father and husband. In fact, I went to great pains to declare my feelings to everyone. My friends and neighbors described me as a tender and loving soul.
But there was a quiet desperation behind my declarations. It was as though I were shouting from the bottom of a well. I was rarely able to take pleasure in my expressions of feeling. I was too busy trying to convince myself that my feelings were real.
I used to feel guilty, for example, when I looked ahead to my parents’ eventual mortality. What would I feel when one of them died? I worried that I might feel nothing. “But I love them!” I remonstrated. “How could I be so ungrateful?” I hated myself for being so unfeeling.
The issue, as it turned out, had nothing to do with my feelings for my parents. When I tried to bury the person inside me, I walled myself off from my own emotions. I thought more than I felt.
I transitioned so that I could finally wear my emotions on my sleeve. During the past two years, I have shared more love with my parents than I did during the first fifty years of my life. Though they continue to mangle pronouns, the relationship we enjoy today is incomparably better.
To transition is to feel the warmth of the sun within you.
Finally, I transitioned in order to be present for those whom I love. My children were often perplexed by my seeming absence from conversations. I was sitting right in front of them, but my mind seemed to be in another world. When I did respond, it was often with an awkwardness they could not understand.
My youngest daughter often broke these moments of silence asking, “Daddy, are you OK? What are you thinking about? What’s the matter?”
These moments always pained me. Part of me wanted to scream, “I’m dying in here!” Instead, I retreated into a lie, “Nothing’s the matter, Sweetie. I’m just thinking.”
I did feel like I was dying. But my distraction was also rooted in the constant struggle to translate my real feelings. Living in the wrong gender is like thinking in Fahrenheit while the rest of the world speaks in centigrade. I had to constantly translate my thoughts from my womanly sentiments to what others expected a man to say.
My middle daughter was the first to note the difference following my transition. “It is so much more fun talking to you now. I feel like you are completely here for me.”
To transition is to finally share the warmth that burns within.
I began my transition for the simplest of reasons: to stay alive. I assumed at the time that my life would become a wretched existence. But at least I would be alive.
But life today, in spite of the prejudice I face, is so much better than I ever imagined it could be. I finally know what it feels like to live free and unafraid. I no longer hide in darkness. I look forward to my future.
I spent four decades consumed by self-loathing and self-doubt. I lost a part of each day battling my gender. Now that I have stripped away all of my fears and doubts, I look forward to a sunny tomorrow.
I might not be half the man I used to be, but I am twice the person.
Tina White recently published an account of her fifty-year journey to womanhood, Between Shadow and Sun: A Husband’s Journey Through Gender—A Wife’s Labor of Love. She maintains a site, personinside, that seeks to support people who are struggling to come to grips with gender variance. You can also follow her twitter feed. Tina and her wife Mary follow the lives of their five children and five grandchildren from their home outside New York City.
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Special thanks to Mary Tyler Mom who inspired this unique and beautiful way of honoring LGBT History Month.